Kris Allen From Underdog to Idol

updated 06/08/2009 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/08/2009 01:00AM

THE MOMENT HE WON
"I WAS JUST SHOCKED"

Back in November 2007, Kris Allen was sure about two things: He was going to marry his girlfriend of five years, Katy O'Connell, and he was going to be a musician. To achieve the latter, he had dropped out of the University of Central Arkansas and was earning roughly $450 a month as a shoe salesman and performing the occasional gig at local bars. As for the first goal, after deciding to ask Katy's father for her hand in marriage, Allen drove his 2001 Pontiac Bonneville to the O'Connell home and circled the neighborhood until Mr. O'Connell's car was in the driveway. In the living room, Allen recalls, "I said, 'I think you know why I'm here.' He had a couple of questions, like, what was I going to do with the rest of my life? It was a nerve-racking moment."

One wedding, one American Idol audition and countless nerve-racking moments later, Allen, 23, finally has an answer for his father-in-law: The singer-songwriter was crowned American Idol's season 8 champ after a finale face-off with the race's presumptive front-runner, Adam Lambert. In a contest characterized by strong voices and big personalities, Allen's victory is the classic tale of the tortoise beating the hare. "That's kind of the way I live my life," Allen says. "I'm kind of laid-back and low-key, and every once in a while, I'll stick my head out."

The path to success has been a long one for Allen, who took up the viola as a child, got his first guitar at 13 and learned piano two years ago. Katy, 22, has been with him most of the way: They attended the same elementary school in Little Rock, Ark. But it wasn't exactly love at first sight. "She had monster glasses and was kind of dorky," Allen recalls. "For a long time I didn't pay attention to her. I'm sure she wasn't paying attention to me either. I was a chubby, goofy kid."

Romance blossomed in high school, when the pair, who were both in the high school orchestra—she played violin; he played the viola—sat together on a long bus ride. "It's almost too cute," Allen admits. "We started dating right after that."

Two months prior to their wedding last September, Kris was coming close to abandoning his musical ambitions. "The Arkansas music scene isn't amazing," he says. "After a year, it didn't make sense to be playing in a bar for three hours with people not listening. I was ready to give up." Katy had other ideas. "She was like, 'No, I'll be your manager. I'll make this happen.' She would stay at the bar while I was playing until 2 in the morning."

After his younger brother Daniel dragged him to a tryout, Allen and his wife found that life in the Idol bubble made for a lonely eight months as newlyweds. Though Katy maintained her marketing job remotely from L.A. so she could attend tapings, she wasn't allowed to spend the night in the Idol mansion. "That was rough," says Allen. Still, she stuck around. "She was like, 'I'm going to stay as long as you're here.'"

Now the couple won't have much time to relax: Allen will release his debut album this winter, and the Top 10 contestants will soon begin rehearsals for their summer tour, which kicks off July 5. Even if his wife won't make it to every stop on the tour, Allen flashes his signature understated grin as he contemplates the double blessing of finally getting to have the girl and the gig. "She understands, because she's known this is what I wanted to do since we got together in the first place," he says. "Music was the only thing I wanted to do."

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